AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Trump administration is hitting some immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally with notices of fines of up to $500,000.
NPR's Franco Ordoñez first reported the news and notes that many are getting the notices while living in sanctuary churches. Welcome to the studio, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: So how did you learn of this story? What did you learn?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I started receiving these letters from immigrants telling me that they had owed the U.S. government almost a half million dollars because they had left the country - or they had not left the country, despite being ordered to do so. As you can imagine, they were stunned by the amount. It's clear that many of these immigrants won't be able to pay a half million dollars.
As you noted, many of them are in - living in churches, in sanctuary that - and these churches are places that support them. Advocates, lawyers see this as an example of the Trump administration trying to stoke fear and confusion in the community, as well as in the sanctuary community.
CORNISH: You reached out to some of these people. What did you hear from them?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I spoke to one woman, Edith Espinal. She had - she's living in a church in Ohio. She's been there for the last two years. Since a judge ordered her to leave, she got a letter telling her that she owed $497,000. She was stunned.
EDITH ESPINAL: They want to scare me because they know I am in sanctuary. The amount is $497,000. I don't know why they charge me.
ORDOÑEZ: As you can hear, she's confused. She says she doesn't understand why they want to charge her. She thinks they're trying to scare her because she's in sanctuary. And she doesn't understand how the U.S. government can even imagine that she could pay that kind of money. She - Espinal - came here in 1995 when she was just 16. She now has three children, two of whom are U.S. citizens. And she says she really knows no other life than here in the United States.
CORNISH: What was the response from the White House?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, immigration officials say that federal law allows the agency to impose civil fines on those who fail to leave. A spokesperson told me today that ICE is committed to using various methods to enforce immigration law and maintain the integrity of judges' orders.
You know, we should remember that it was two years ago that President Trump actually indicated that he wanted to do this. He signed an executive order in his first month of office where he promised that fines would be collected as soon as practical on those who are here illegally.
CORNISH: Right. And this comes in context of the Trump administration doing a number of things to try and increase pressure on immigrants in the U.S. - immigrants who are here illegally - either as punishment or an attempt at deterrent, right?
ORDOÑEZ: Right. Yes. This is - this really comes at a time that the Trump administration really is ratcheting up pressure. It's about to launch, you know, those delayed immigration sweeps targeting individuals and families who had already been ordered to be deported - that is, if Congress can't agree on some type of tightening of immigration rules - pardon me - asylum rules. It also follows the Trump administration signing a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package that not only pitted Republicans versus Democrats, but pitted Democrats v. Democrats. It is such an emotional and divisive moment right now on this issue.
CORNISH: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
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